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Answer Sheet
Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 05/29/2012

Geniuses: born or made?

Jack Andraka is a 15-year-old kid from Maryland who just won the world’s largest and most important high school science fair by devising a new way to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages.


(Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
And then there’s Lori Anne Madison, the 6-year-old Virginia girl who is the youngest student ever to qualify for the National Spelling Bee — but she’s more than just a great speller. The prodigy, who lives in Prince William County, was reading at the age of 2.

Andraka, from Anne Arundel County, nabbed the first-place $75,000 scholarship award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh and will also receive and $12,000 in cash for his discovery.

His detection method is elegant in its simplicity: He created a dip-stick sensor that can test blood or urine for pancreatic cancer, work he undertook after the disease killed his uncle and a friend’s brother.

Let me repeat: He is 15 years old.

It all makes you wonder about the nature of genius. A while back I did a Q & A about this subject with Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis and an expert in genius, creativity, leadership and aesthetics. Here it is:

Q) What exactly is a genius? Do you have to be an Einstein to be a genius?

A) The IQ definition: According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a genius is someone with an IQ of 140 or higher. This definition is rather arbitrary. Not just number, but the idea that there exists a test that can provide a meaningful score for everybody - a one-size fits-all measure. But notice that by the IQ definition you don’t have to be an Einstein to be a genius. Marilyn Vos Savant is an IQ genius, but no Einstein.

The exceptional achievement definition: Someone who comes up with ideas or productions that are both original and exemplary - models of achievement that others admire and even imitate. This a definition that fits Einstein, albeit you don’t have to have a genius that supreme to be considered a genius.

Q) Isn’t the word ‘genius’ overused?

A) Yes, I think it’s overused. It’s sometimes applied to domains that don’t really demand originality. For example, it’s stretching the term to call Tiger Woods a golf genius. Tiger has tremendous skill and talent, but you do not need to be original to win the Masters. You just have to be very, very good at driving and putting.

Q) What’s the difference between being brilliant and being a genius?

A) I don’t know what you mean by “brilliant.” If you mean a high IQ, then it depends on the definition, no? If you mean that a genius has to be someone who is extremely witty in conversation and able to converse on an impressive range of subjects, then the answer is no. A lot of geniuses can be absolute bores outside a very narrow area of expertise. Like many mathematical geniuses.

Q) Are geniuses born or can they be made? In other words, can I do anything to make myself a genius?

A) Both born and made. You can’t become a genius without a tremendous amount of work. You have to acquire sufficient expertise in an achievement domain to know what you’re talking about or what you’re doing. You cannot acquire such expertise in most domains without have a certain level of intelligence and considerable drive and persistence. And these traits are to a certain degree genetic. If you’re born “stupid and lazy” forget about earning a Nobel Prize in Physics!

Q) Name a few geniuses that we all would know and explain what makes them geniuses. Is Bill Gates a genius or just someone very smart and lucky?

A) Bill Gates probably satisfies both definitions, so he’s an easy case. There’s no doubt that he was very smart and that he produced work that was original and exemplary. Stephen Hawking would be another example. However, not all geniuses would necessarily score 140 or higher on an IQ test. This is especially true in the arts. Frank Gehry is an unquestioned architectural genius, but he may or may not meet that dictionary definition. The same holds for a great filmmaker like [Steven] Spielberg.

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 05/29/2012

 
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